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This article was published 25/10/2019 (602 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
REGINA — In a perfect world, Dale Hawerchuk would be in Regina this week swapping tall tales with former teammates and opponents about the good-old days between the Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames. And a few not so good days.
Instead, the 56-year-old Hall of Famer affectionately known as "Ducky" is out of sight, but certainly not out of mind, as the Western Conference rivals get set to face off in the Heritage Classic Saturday night at Mosaic Stadium.
Hawerchuk revealed publicly earlier this week he's undergoing chemotherapy for stomach cancer, describing his current situation as being in "the fight of my life." Doctors discovered a tumour in late August and began treatment immediately with his family at his side at their current home in Ontario.
While the festive atmosphere surrounding this latest battle of Winnipeg vs. Calgarywas quite apparent Friday, so, too, was the level of concern for the longtime Jets 1.0 captain.
"Dale Hawerchuk is royalty in the history of the Winnipeg Jets. He put that team on the map. And he's continued to be an incredible alumnus for us in so may respects. And we're very very proud to have him as part of our group. I'm praying for him and thinking about him every day," said Jets co-owner and chairman Mark Chipman, who spoke to Hawerchuk last week.
"He seems to be doing OK. He's really appreciative for everybody that's been reaching out to him. He's in a battle and he knows it."
It would have been something to see Hawerchuk on stage Friday afternoon as part of the Heritage Classic Legacy Luncheon, which included alumni from the Jets and Flames taking a fun trip down memory lane as part of the festivities surrounding this neutral-site event.
Just imagine the comeback he might have had for Jamie Macoun, the former Calgary defenceman who notoriously broke Hawerchuk's ribs during a nasty playoff series between the teams in the spring of 1986. Hawerchuk's season was over, and while his Jets managed to douse the Flames, they were no match in the next round against Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers.
"I accidentally took Dale Hawerchuk out. I don't know if you guys remember this, you Winnipeg people," Macoun said during the "hot-stove" session, seemingly still relishing the role of villain.
"You might have to work on your definition of accidental," cracked Jets blue-liner Dave Ellett, who along with Thomas Steen, Kris King and Shane Doan was seated beside him and quickly defended Hawerchuk's honour.
"I cross-checked him on purpose. I didn't mean to break three or four ribs," replied Macoun. "Literally to this day people won't talk to me because I took out Dale Hawerchuk."
Hall of Famer and former Flames captain Lanny McDonald used that episode in history in a recent chat with his longtime on-ice rival.
"He's in a fight for his life. I spoke to Dale two weeks ago and reminded him of being knocked down by Jamie. And encouraged him that, even though he's been knocked down many times in his life, this is one fight that he'll find a way to get back up and win all over again," McDonald said to cheers.
"In a spare moment, in your thoughts and prayers, make sure you say a couple for Dale Hawerchuk."
Hawerchuk, the first-overall draft pick by the Jets in 1981, is on leave as head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts. His close relationship with Winnipeg has continued to this day. For example, the Jets 2.0 used their first pick in the 2011 draft to select a scrawny Barrie centre named Mark Scheifele, after much consultation with Hawerchuk. To say that seventh-overall selection turned out OK would be an understatement.
Hawerchuk is as classy as they come, which is why news of his health situation has caught many off guard.
"There's a reason we started Hockey Fights Cancer. It can affect anyone. It's not just the person who gets ill. It's the family. And we view the NHL and all the people associated with the game, on and off the ice, including our fans, as part of our family," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told me Friday.
There's no question the rivalry between the Jets and Flames isn't nearly as intense as it once was, back in those Smythe Division days of the 1980s and early 1990s where the animosity was absolutely palpable every time they hit the ice. Playing in different divisions and only seeing each other three times a season will do that.
But it might heat up quickly on what's expected to be a frosty night in Regina, with both teams a bit ornery these days and desperate for a win — even if Macoun doesn't think anything can replicate the past.
"The difference between then and now... is that when we played against Winnipeg, or Edmonton or Vancouver for that matter, we hated each other. We absolutely hated each other. Nowadays, after the game, you see everybody coming up and hugging each other and smooching each other on the cheek. It makes me sick," said Macoun, with some degree of tongue planted in cheek.
"I think a lot of people don't realize how intense the rivalry was with the Flames. My only memory of those games, and I've gone to most of them, was just how brutally intense they were. I think when Jamie talked about how they disliked each other, that was tangible," said Chipman.
"Like you could feel it. Not just in playoff games but in regular-season games, middle of the year, you walk in and it could be a Tuesday night and they're playing the Oilers or the Flames and it was just intense, and that's what I remember about it. So it's really cool the two Heritage games we've been able to be a part of are against those two Smythe Division rivals."
This one will take on extra-special meaning, with Hawerchuk on the minds of everyone.
"He knows how to battle and he's in a big one right now. By talking to him and hearing his voice, it sounds very much like he's up for it," said Chipman.
"We're looking forward to having him in the building as soon as he returns to health."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.